Steel City Derby: Sheffield United v Sheffield Wednesday Rivalry & History

Sheffield United v Sheffield WednesdaySheffield in South Yorkshire is one of England largest cities. It contains two of the country's oldest clubs in Sheffield Wednesday and Sheffield United.

The red and white Blades of United are based in the South of the City with the blue and white Owls of Wednesday to the North.

Sheffield became famous for its steel production during the industrial revolutions and there's plenty required on the pitch when these sides and their fervent supporters clash.

Map of Sheffield United & Sheffield Wednesday Stadiums

Map of Sheffield United & Sheffield Wednesday Stadiums

About the Steel City Derby

Tram in Sheffield City Centre

There are plenty of rivalries in football that have nothing to do with geographical location. For proof of that, have a look at the manner in which Leeds and Millwall supporters despite each other, or the clashes between Dundee United and Aberdeen despite the fact that the two clubs are located nowhere near each other. There’s little question, however, that two sides based in the same city have a mutual dislike that is rarely matched by sides that are rivals for less immediate reasons than their physical locations. Such is the case in the Steel City derby, with Sheffield United and Sheffield Wednesday matches considered by many to be amongst the most fiercely contested in football.

Whether the match is hosted at Bramall Lane, home of United, or Wednesday’s Hillsborough Stadium, you can expect both sets of players to give that little bit more than even the most fiery of the non-city rivalries that have been written about elsewhere on this site. It’s not just geography that sets these teams apart from other rivalries, either. The two sides’ fortunes have often mirrored each other, resulting in the teams playing for success on the pitch as well as the right to boast off it. Sadly that has sometimes spilt over into the stands, with supporters being just as feisty with each other as the players. Here’s a more detailed look at the battle for supremacy in Sheffield.

The Formative Years

When you’re trying to find out about why two clubs that have both enjoyed little to no success in the modern era still despise each other quite so passionately, one of the best things to do is to go back in time and see how they both came into being and what happened during their more formative years. Sheffield Wednesday was founded in 1867 as The Wednesday Club, making it one of the oldest football clubs anywhere in the world. It was formed out of The Wednesday Cricket Club, so named because the founding members of the team had a day off work on Wednesdays. The reason that they formed the football club was in order to give the players something to do to keep them all together during the winter months when cricket wasn’t an option.

Sheffield United, meanwhile, wasn’t formed until 1889, though it once again emerged from a cricket club. This one had the more straight forward name of Sheffield United Cricket Club and they played their games at Bramall Lane. The football club was formed after one of the ground’s staff members saw an FA Cup semi-final being played at the location and thought it was a good idea to create another football club for the city. He persuaded the directors of the cricket club that the added revenue would be helpful for the cricketers and the game would be a fun one to play, leading the powers that be to form Sheffield United and advertise for players to come and play for them. Initially many of those players came from Scotland to ply their trade, with the game already popular north of the border.

It is in these early years of the Steel City derby that you can find the origins of the enmity that was to follow. When the two clubs played each other in 1895, for example, the supporters from both Wednesday and United made funeral cards that announced the death of the other side. Sufficed to say, the creation of the new club wasn’t seen as a good thing from all sides of the city. In fact, families ended up being divided by the presence of two teams in Sheffield, with brothers falling out with each other and fathers refusing to speak to their sons on account of their footballing loyalty. Five years before funeral cards were being produced, Sheffield United attempted to poach supporters by charging less for admission than Sheffield Wednesday were asking, at the same time that they were trying to get players to defect from one club to another.

In the early days of the two clubs being formed, Sheffield United fans tended to be made up of a combination of those that lived near to Bramall Lane or had been supporting other teams in the city but decided to give the new club a try. Sheffield Wednesday, on the other hand had been formed by market traders and therefore offered people a wealthier and more traditional team to support. Interestingly, any team from the city was originally known as the Blades because of Sheffield’s association with the steel industry. It wasn’t until Wednesday moved to the Owlerton district that they became known as the Owls and United were given the moniker of the Blades more permanently.

The Football League and An Established Order

Speak to any Sheffield United fan and they’ll tell you that their club is the biggest and best in the city, but deep down they probably know that historically that isn’t the case. It’s the origins of the Football League itself that can point you in the direction of why. Having been created in 1888, it was decided to expand the First Division and add a Second Division to proceedings in 1892. Both Sheffield teams joined the league at that point, with Sheffield Wednesday being selected to join the expanded sixteen team First Division via a ballot whilst United ended up going into the twelve team Second Division. This gave Sheffield Wednesday the reputation of being a more premier team in comparison to their neighbours, who were seen as the second-tier team in the city in more ways than one.

As mentioned, United supporters would deny this but you can see it play out in the way that the two stadiums were developed over the years. Wednesday’s Hillsborough Stadium was expanded to include a cantilever stand in 1961 and was then used as one of the host venues for the World Cup when England won the rights to hold the tournament on its shores in 1966. At United’s Bramall Lane, meanwhile, there were only three sides to the ground in the 1960s and cricket was still hosted there. It wasn’t taken seriously as a footballing venue, but the rivalry with Wednesday led to the club building a new stand of their own that was intended to be as impressive as their neighbours, only for the cost of it to cause them financial issues for the decades that followed its opening. Whether they liked it or not, United were very much seen as being the lesser of the two Sheffield teams.

The Failed Merger

What’s most interesting about the rivalry of the two Sheffield clubs is that at one stage there were vague plans to merge the two clubs in order to create something of a super club that would represent the city as a whole and take the fight to the bigger boys of the Premier League. Mike McDonald took control of Sheffield United in December of 1995 having made his money from scrap metal. The self-professed Manchester City supporter was therefore at the club at the same time that Dave Richards was the Chairman of Sheffield Wednesday and the two of them got together and discussed the possibly of bringing the two clubs together.

The process got as far as launching feasibility studies, with the plan being to build a stadium close to the airport and just off the M1, whilst the team would play in a kit of red and blue stripes in order to represent the two teams and the colours of their traditional kits. It goes without saying that neither set of fans were keen on the idea, with polls suggesting that 98% were vehemently opposed to it happening. The idea did actually have some merit in terms of financial sense, given that neither club was all that rich and, objectively speaking, one really strong football club would be better for a city than two mediocre ones. When Richards left Wednesday to join the Football Association the entire enterprise fell apart, which is probably for the best from the point of view of the two sets of supporters.

The idea of the two clubs becoming one might be outrageous, but there has been precedent of them at least working together over the years. In 2011, for example, the two clubs hosted a joint press conference under the banner of ‘Supporting Sheffield’. In it they announced that they’d confirmed a joint shirt sponsoring deal with two local companies, one of which would sponsor United’s shirts for home matches and Wednesday’s for away games, whilst the other would do the opposite. In the end a not-for-profit healthcare organisation called Westfield Health was one sponsor, with a local Volkswagen car dealer called the Gilder Group was the other.

Past Glories

It wasn’t always the case that the two clubs were mired in mediocrity. During the early years of the Football League the two sides actually shared some much vaunted victories, with Sheffield United winning the First Division in 1898 having just missed out in 1897, coming second once more in 1900. They also managed to pick up two FA Cup wins during the same period, beating Derby County in the 1899 final and Southampton in 1902, losing to Tottenham Hotspur in 1901. They won the FA Cup again in 1915 and then again in 1925, missing out to Arsenal in 1936.

The 1898 league win of their neighbours must have spurred Sheffield Wednesday on and they responded by winning back-to-back First Division titles in 1903 and 1904, having already picked up the FA Cup for the first time in 1896 when they beat Wolverhampton Wanderers, they also won the FA Cup in 1907 with a 2-1 over Everton. They would go on to win three more top-flight titles, with the most recent being in 1961. They also won the FA Cup again in 1935 and very nearly completed a cup double when the picked up the League Cup in 1991 and then reached the final of both it and the FA Cup in 1993, losing out both times to the same team that stopped Sheffield United winning in 1936, Arsenal.

Famous Clashes

As you can imagine for a rivalry as fierce as the Steel City derby, there have been a number of examples of the two teams clashing over the years. Here’s a look at some of the better-known ones:

The Mud Bath Of 1925

Nothing encourages strong tackles and feisty moments quite like a pitch that’s been turned into a mud bath. When the two teams were drawn to face each other in the FA Cup second round in 1925 nobody expected the match to become quite such an influence on the matter from the weather. Yet the night before the game the rain started and simply didn’t stop. In fact, it didn’t end even briefly until half an hour after the match had kicked off, at which point the pitch was virtually underwater. That didn’t stop more than forty thousand supporters turning up, of course, and they’ll have been glad that they did.

It was an end-to-end affair, with Wednesday taking a 2-0 lead before United came back into the match and equalised, all of which was after just twenty minutes. The second-half was delayed when the referee felt there was bad light but he refused to allow the players to leave the pitch. It didn’t take United long to complete their turnaround and, despite Wednesday hitting the post and putting pressure on their opponents for an equaliser, they went on to win the match and, eventually, the FA Cup itself. Not a bad spectacle for those in attendance considering the match wouldn’t even be played in those conditions nowadays.

The High Scoring Steel City Derby

Having been promoted to the First Division in 1950, Sheffield Wednesday suffered the ignominy of heading straight back down again at the end of the season, despite the fact that they’d managed to beat Everton 6-0 in the final game. They hoped to bounce straight back up but the Blades were also hoping to gain promotion, adding extra spice to the Steel City derby that year. It was made even spicier by the fact that both teams were just a point behind the league leaders Notts County, meaning that a win would given them a chance to hit the top of the table and put themselves clear of their neighbours.

It was Wednesday that took the initiative and went ahead, but it didn’t take United long to respond at Bramall one and they were 2-1 up at half-time. The scoreline gave no indication of what was to follow, however. Wednesday felt that they had dodged a bullet when Fred Furniss missed an early penalty for the home side and the away team soon equalised, but United then went on to score four goals in the space of a few minutes. The match ended up finishing 7-3 to the hosts, which is the highest scoring game in the history of the Sheffield derby.

FA Cup Semi-Final

The 1993 FA Cup semi-finals were an interesting offering, if for no other reason than it was a pair of derbies. The first was the battle of North London between Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur, whilst the second was obviously the Steel City derby. It’s that latter match that we’re most interested in and it is considered to be the most famous outing of the match to date. Originally the Football Association had decided that the two London clubs would play their match at Wembley and the Sheffield sides would play at fellow Yorkshire club Leeds United’s home of Eland Road. It was noted, however, that that would give the winners of the first tie an advantage of having played at Wembley ahead of the final, so the FA relented and allowed both ties to take place at the home of football.

The result was the day was more like a carnival for the supporters of both teams than the full-blooded affair the world had grown used to when it came to the Sheffield derby. Fans mingled together on the concourses and were generally just delighted to be there. Perhaps that’s why the match itself was something of an anti-climax. Sheffield Wednesday took the lead after just a minute and were thoroughly dominant throughout but couldn’t add to their scoreline. It therefore seemed slightly inevitable that United would get an equaliser and so it proved, scoring just before half-time. The match somewhat petered out after that and in the end the Owls won it in extra-time. The match might have disappointed, but for one glorious day the city of Sheffield got to take over Wembley Stadium.